April 29, 2008

Sports Section Convert Reflects on the Journey

Print More

I never intended to become a sports writer. I didn’t write for my high school paper or any other legitimate publication for that matter. I didn’t arrive in Ithaca with grandiose aspirations of sitting courtside at Cameron Indoor Stadium or interviewing Cornell’s elite athletes on a weekly basis. Hell, as a freshman, I barely even read The Sun, let alone considered joining it. But now that I think about it, I didn’t do much of anything freshman year besides drink SoCo, so that isn’t really a knock on The Sun.
Getting back on track here, in preparation my final column as a collegiate writer (and in all likelihood my final column ever) I have been trying to figure out exactly how I arrived here. Who brainwashed me into writing over 100 – yeah, I counted – articles about an Ivy League institution’s athletic teams? How did I let myself spend night after night editing and writing at The Sun’s headquarters until 2 a.m. while everyone else I knew was busy downing pitchers and rocking out to Akon at Johnny O’s? Why did I decide to dedicate more time working for this damn paper than arguably anything else I have done (in a three-year period) in my life? They are all good questions, and ones that my friends have reminded me of constantly. In searching for the answers to them, I need to go back a few years.
On an otherwise unspectacular day during my sophomore year, I stumbled upon an ad which asked, “Do you like sports? Do you like to write? Join the Sports Department!” As simplistic and cheesy as that ad sounds now, all I could think at the time was “I like sports. I like to write. What the hell, let’s see what happens.” It certainly didn’t hurt that at this point in my life I was desperately searching for something to make me feel like a legitimate person once again. I was growing tired of wasting hour after hour looking up stats on MLB.com half-naked in my room (true story). There had to be more to life than drinking and baseball. But now that I think about it, does anyone actually remember what they did with all of their time as a freshman?
Back at The Sun, I made it through a few training sessions and I started my career on the men’s tennis beat. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and was nervous every time I interviewed an athlete or coach on the phone. Slightly embarrassing, sure, but I just didn’t want to make a fool out of myself. Looking back on those first few articles, however, I realize that I did anyways. They were uninteresting, grammatically incorrect and unorganized articles about a team that was next to last on the fall pecking order (sorry Goldstein, you guys are No. 1 in my book). After a while, I “graduated” to covering field hockey in the fall, track in the winter and then softball in the spring. At this point in my writing career, I endured constant ribbing from friends and family members about spending so much time covering “unimportant” sports. I mean, my very own mother gave me some heat about covering field hockey (sorry mom, but it’s true).
I couldn’t quite place my finger on it, but something about writing for the sports section just felt right. There was something about witnessing my fellow college students, faced with the same academic pressures that all competitive Cornellians tackle on a weekly basis, wholeheartedly devoting their lives to a common cause that made me feel inspired. It was a feeling that I hadn’t truly felt since my days as a high school athlete — and I missed it. Somewhere deep down I knew that regardless of what the people around me thought, what I was doing was important, if only to the athletes, the coaches and their families. Their relentless efforts deserved my respect, and in return, my full commitment as a reporter. So I kept at it.
That summer I applied for a sports column — and failed. Of course I thought what I composed was pure genius and was stunned when I heard the news. Looking back on those sample columns, however, I can’t help but laugh at my own stupidity. They resembled articles in Maxim much more than legitimate forms of sports journalism, filled with phrases like, and I am quoting here, “Seriously, would it kill Cornell to recruit a few more blonds from California?” Considering that the sports editor at the time was a woman, that probably wasn’t the best approach. But the point is that I was much closer to quitting than stepping up my commitment.
This brings me to fall semester of my junior year. By this point I was much more concerned with winning a spot on the Interfraternity Council (IFC) than anything else. When the dust settled, however, I lost for the second consecutive year. It stung, I’m not going to lie, but two and a half years later I couldn’t be more pleased with the result. Instead of punishing frats for throwing “unregistered” parties that resulted in naked, belligerent members stealing bicycles (which I usually support), I finally had the opportunity to do something productive with my love for sports aside from arguing with friends about why people need to stop hating on A-Rod. Although it took a lot of encouragement from people like former sports editors Olivia Dwyer and Chris “Beefy” Mascaro, former assistant sports editor Kyle “Revlon” Sheahen and future Editor-in-Chief Jonny Lieberman, I finally decided to run for assistant sports editor and won the position six weeks later.
Editing was actually terrible; I’m not going to sugar-coat it. Creating the sports section knocked out 2-3 nights a week (between 5 p.m. until usually around 1:30 a.m.) from my life and I received little appreciation for my efforts except “Dude, why didn’t you go out last night?” Few people realize how hard it is to produce a paper from scratch everyday. Every time I heard someone complain about how many mistakes are in The Sun I wanted to form tackle them into a bookcase. I mean it’s not like the editors are chilling, smoking blunts and playing flip cup until one hour before deadline every night. It takes 7 hours of solid work as well as incredible creativity and patience to deal with the inevitability of crisis situations to create the paper. So please think twice the next time you become enraged over an article misspelling your favorite professor’s name; it’s a lot harder than it looks.
But there were benefits to the job. The first one that comes to mind was sitting courtside at Cameron Indoor Stadium for Cornell’s first-ever meeting with Duke. I was convinced I was about to witness history until Duke, well, started playing like Duke. But as consolation, I got to interview Coach Krzyzewski, Greg Paulus and Kyle Singler. Sure, I may have acted so inappropriately towards the Cameron Crazies that Cornell Director of Athletic Communications Jeremy Hartigan (by the way, no hard feelings Jeremy) revoked my press pass privileges and Duke now refuses to accept anyone from the Cornell Daily Sun — but it was worth it. That was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life and it would not have been possible without The Sun.
The other benefit of the job was getting the opportunity to write “10 Questions.” I had always appreciated the article as an underclassman and when former assistant sports editor and townie-extraordinaire Paul Testa asked me to take it over, I couldn’t have been happier. I knew that it was my opportunity to push the boundaries a little bit, to see just how far I could go without getting protested against.
After some much-needed guidance from Testa, I chose senior tennis player (and well known frat star) Nick Brunner for my first interview. I was incredibly nervous going into it but as soon as Brunner and I started talking, my uneasiness quickly dissipated. 50 minutes later, when the interview was finally complete, I knew I had found something special. That interview remains my favorite “10 Questions” ever (rivaled only by the hilarity of cult-hero and squirrel-hater Jeff Foote) and one of my favorite memories at Cornell. My one regret is that I did not type out and convince our editor to print our entire conversation verbatim; it was that funny. But then again, I probably would have been fired. I quickly understood how thin of a line I was walking when my dad sent me an email the following day, “Lance, I laughed my ass off. … But how did they let you print this in the paper?” Even Testa asked me to tone it down a little.
Given the feedback from that article, I knew that if I was going to continue to interview Cornell’s athletes in the same manner, it would probably come at the cost of pissing off a few people in the process. And I did. I’ve received numerous emails berating me for my “insensitive questions” and my “concerted effort to poorly represent Cornell’s athletic community.” One (my personal favorite) even went so far as to call me “a misogynist pig who thinks that girl’s sports are a joke.” Cornell’s athletic administration even threatened to never let me speak with an athlete again.
My intention was never to piss off anyone; it was merely to create something that was a departure from the bland, formulaic article that is the staple of the sports section. After all, we are a liberal, college newspaper in a liberal, college city. So logically I catered to college kids, not middle-aged, conservative administrators. I strove to create something that the Cornell population could look forward to every Thursday morning, if only for a few cheap laughs. I certainly didn’t enjoy receiving such extreme negative feedback, but the fact is that for every negative reaction I received ten positive ones. So thank you all for your continued support, I could not have done it without you.
This column is already ridiculously long but I would be amiss to end it without taking the time to acknowledge and thank all of those who helped me along the way. So, in no particular order:
To The 125th Editorial Board — It has been a wild ride for us since we started and I just wanted to say that it was an absolute pleasure working with all of you. I could not imagine a more laid back and amicable group of people. I’ve enjoyed getting to know you all, thanks for the many memories, flip cup games and laughs.
To Josh Perlin — It was certainly difficult to work for you at times but I realize now that this was not as much a reflection of your character as it was your passion for sports journalism. You did not want to accept mediocrity and pushed us everyday to improve, make fewer mistakes and care more. I was very impressed with how much devotion you showed for The Sun and all of the changes you spearheaded to make the sports section more entertaining.
To Michael Mix — I am still dumbfounded that you did not win the assistant sports editor race given that you are the smartest and most qualified person of the four of us. But I think, as you acknowledged, it worked out perfectly and you were absolutely invaluable to us as a writer and emergency editor. I honestly can’t remember a time when one of your stories was not on time and almost flawless (as evidenced by Harrison’s carry-page antics). Good luck in law school man, I’m sure we’ll see each other again sometime soon.
To Cory Bennett — You have come a long way, my friend, from the freshman who appeared at his first Sun training session drenched in sweat after running to the office from crew practice. In the three years since I met you, I have never heard anyone say as much as one bad word about you. You are genuine, funny, intelligent, caring and the best writer on the staff. Thank you for understanding when I dogged you on columns time after time, I know that I will be seeing you on ESPN one day. Just have a little faith and work your ass off.
To Harrison Sanford — The young boy! We have seen a lot of great times, my man. You are probably the happiest, friendliest and most optimistic individual I have met in my life. I can’t even count how many times I have seen you late night with a huge smile on your face. I don’t think I could have made it through “hell week” during compet without you by my side. Actually, my entire experience at the Sun would not have been half as fun without you there. Keep making moves with “The Red Light,” you never know where it could lead. I mean, what other college kid could get interviews with Jay Bilas, Frank Beamer and Gary Bettman? Like Cory, I expect to see you on ESPN (or maybe the Playboy network) one day. Do work.
To Jonny Lieberman — We made it through two different types of pledging together, I’m not sure which one was worse. It’s been amazing to watch you transform from a Cali kid who was having trouble finding his niche at Cornell to the legendary EIC who seemingly knew everyone on campus. Seriously, I can’t walk into CTB with you without you saying “hi” to at least four different people and having meaningful conversations with all of them. I think I speak for everyone on the board when I say that you have my utmost respect as a leader and as a person. It would have been difficult for me to make it through the year without your support and friendship. I know you will be successful in whatever it is you want to do. Hopefully, I’ll be chilling with you on the WEST COAST (as opposed to the EAST COAST or DIRTY SOUTH) as much as possible next year.
To Psi — You guys have meant everything to me over these past four years. We’ve all had so great many memories together that I won’t even attempt to single out some of them here. Thanks for making my college experience as good as I could have ever imagined. I know we’ll keep in touch. PAPAPAPAPA.
To Becky — It’s pretty incredible to think how far we’ve come. From blacking out at formals freshman year to becoming the longest tenured couple in my pledge class. I’m not really sure how it all happened, I just know that I’m glad it did. You make me happy everyday and I love you. I know everything will work out in the end.
To Mom, Dad, and Kyle — I just wanted to thank you guys for always supporting me through thick and thin. Dad, I owe my love for sports almost exclusively to your role in my life. Thanks for your dedication and your astute guidance with all of my tough decisions. Kyle, we’ve had our differences but I’m so pleased that we’ve overcome it all to become close. I know you’ll be a big shot one day. Mom, you are the most generous and hardest working person I know and I could only hope to accomplish half of the things that you have in your life.
My column’s moniker refers to the home run call of Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson, the broadcaster for the Chicago White Sox. It is without a doubt the best homerun call in the game and, in many respects, is what started my boyhood obsession with baseball and, to a lesser degree, sports in general. It has been quite a journey for me since the days of sprawling out on the floor of my parent’s bedroom watching Sox games; I can only imagine what is in store for me next.